Thursday, October 04, 2007

Sudan Man: deconstructing a George Forbes feature story

This report is a deconstruction of a feature article “Our Man in Sudan” by Cameron Stewart from the Weekend Australian Magazine on 15-16 September, 2007. The article is about Australian citizen George Forbes who achieved media headlines when he faced the death penalty after being charged with murder in Southern Sudan. After three months, the news story ended when a higher court eventually overruled a lower court sentence and Forbes returned to freedom in Australia.

Cameron Stewart’s 3,600 word article tells Forbes’s story in feature format. It was
presented as the second of five feature articles in the magazine that weekend and was billed on the front of the magazine as “How I survived a living hell in an African jail”. The article is an example of a news feature that is simultaneously a backgrounder and a historical feature. It is an in-depth of a story that made recent news and takes advantage of the fact there is already public interest in the subject matter.

Stewart’s story is a meticulous timeline of events especially while the case in front of the Sudanese courts. Stewart had to piece together events that were taking place simultaneously in several theatres of action. Stewart’s sources of information included his newspaper’s clippings file of the initial news story and the knowledge he gained from detailed interviews with Forbes. Stewart also gathers information and quotes from six other key actors: a politician, a diplomat, a lawyer, a barrister, a pastor and a medical scientist.

The one key question Stewart asks in his article is “Why hadn’t (Forbes) run
when he had the chance?” It is the only question asked by the journalist that ends up in the article. Stewart asks this question so he can set up a detailed account of Forbes selfless actions to protect the men working for him and the consequences of this action. It is an open question designed to get more than a few words for a satisfactory answer. Forbes himself drives the narrative forward with his complex answer to the question.

Because Stewart opened his account with a narrative of a dramatic incident in the story, when the outcome is uncertain, the feature is obliged to convey the story’s theme early. But he moves forward to the present tense of the interview before giving a potted thumbnail of the story in paragraphs 6 to 8. Only then does Stewart settle in to a chronological account of the story before returning to the interview setting at the end.

Stewart goes for a “gotcha” lead to grab the reader’s attention. It is a suspense lead, playing with readers expectations and withholding information. Why is there a dead man next to Forbes and why would Forbes be next? The reader wants to know more. The last paragraph of the article is a ‘looking ahead’ closer where the reader is invited to project ahead to coming circumstances.

The article takes its style and tone from the stark accompanying picture of Forbes next to a noose in a cell-like room. It also owes a lot to the ‘cloak and dagger’ nature of the article’s misleading title “Our Man in Sudan” (with its connotations of Graham Greene and espionage). Forbes is not a spy or a government employee. Nevertheless it establishes a sombre tone that is suitable for the seriousness of the story.

The use of quotes from Forbes is designed to flesh out his personality. We hear of Forbes administering an antibiotic to a dying man, showing a sense of humour as he discusses “Monty Python moments” and his “few bad apples” quote shows his native optimism. Len Granato calls these anecdotes “the heart and soul of the feature story and demonstrate attitude and outlook".

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